Rev. Adam Hamilton is a colleague of mine and a respected preacher and Biblical scholar. He recently wrote the article copied below about an ancient text that allegedly refers to Jesus as having been married to Mary Magdalene. I commend his article to you as excellent food for thought on this report:*
“Okay, let’s talk about the announcement this week of a fragment of a papyrus (an ancient scrap of paper) where Jesus mentions his wife. The timing of this announcement I felt was perfect, given last week in my sermon I walked you through the formation of the New Testament and how books either did or did not make it into the New Testament. We learned last week that the gospels in our New Testament draw upon the earliest strata of information about Jesus and date to the first century. The materials the gospel writers drew from date back to the earliest decades of the Christian faith and to eyewitness accounts. By the end of the first century and beginning of the second century these gospels are quoted by the early church fathers.
This week Harvard professor Karen King announced at a conference in Rome the text of a papyrus from the 300′s in which Jesus mentions Mary (presumably Magdalene) as his wife. There has since been some questions raised as to whether the fragment is authentic, but let’s assume it is. The fragment comes from the 300′s, 200+ years after the gospels were written. It is said that it could be a Coptic translation of an earlier Greek document. Perhaps but we have no evidence of this.
What we do know is that in the second, third and fourth centuries there were a host of “gospels” and other works that were written purporting to have information about Jesus or the apostles. They contain interesting and often fanciful stories about Jesus as a boy, or esoteric sayings placed on the lips of Jesus as a man – sayings that supported the particular leanings of this or that group.
Here are the questions I would ask about the idea of Jesus being married to Mary: If Jesus were married to Mary Magdalene, why would none of the gospels, nor any of the earliest witnesses not mention this? Mary is clearly an important person in the gospels, and she is a follower of Jesus. She is the first witness to the resurrection. She may even have loved Jesus. But there was no shame in being married in the first century. Had Jesus been married Christian theology would have developed around that idea. But neither the gospels nor the earliest documents of the Christian faith, or the letters of Paul, mention this; the early church fathers don’t mention it either. So, none of the documents we have from the earliest period of the Christian church make reference to this idea. But a fragment from a document from the 300′s, not quoted by any of the church leaders from the first three centuries of the Christian faith, is found with Jesus mentioning his wife. This would not lead me to believe this was a reliable piece of information.
Last week we noted that the criteria by which documents made it into the New Testament were apostolicity, catholicity and consistency with the gospel. Apostolicity meant that a document was written by an apostle or somehow having access to or associated with the preaching of the apostles. Catholicity meant that the document was accepted, used by and found helpful to a majority of churches across the ancient world. Consistency related to whether the message was consistent with the earliest strata of documents the church had – the letters of Paul and the four gospels. This document appears to bear none of these marks.
So, it is interesting and fun to read these documents to see how the gospel began to be reshaped and the ideas that were added to it in the centuries after the time of Jesus, but such finds don’t lead me to question the accounts we have found in the gospels of the New Testament. By the way, there is an online library of both the earliest Christian documents, the writings of the church fathers and these documents that were rejected by the church. It is fascinating to read them.”
*Reprinted from Rev. Adam Hamilton’s weekly e-blast to his congregation at Church of the Resurrection United Methodist Church in Leawood, Kansas. (www.cor.org).